The Slow Death of the Campaign Group

By tolerating a semi-autonomous faction that seeks compromise with the centre, the Socialist Campaign Group could be sealing the fate of socialism in the Labour Party.

5 min read

It seems sadly ironic that one legacy from Jeremy Corbyn’s period in the Labour leadership seems to be the largest but weakest Socialist Campaign Group ever. Stuffed with MPs who joined while the bandwagon was rolling leftwards, but who now want to coexist peacefully with Starmer’s leadership, the latest farcical stage of the Campaign Group’s self-neutering is its seeming acceptance of a new internal faction, funded by US philanthropic capital,1 and open only to the Group’s least rebellious members.

For most of its history, the Campaign Group was not something which MPs rushed to join. After it split from the broad-left Tribune Group over Tony Benn’s Deputy Leadership challenge in the early 1980s, joining was an effective way of ensuring you did not get offered a frontbench job (though, for the opportunistically-minded, joining then leaving could secure you the prized reputation of a former leftwinger who had seen the light).

Everything changed in 2015. In May that year, largely thanks to Unite’s new political strategy, a small group of young socialist MPs, including Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, were elected, countering the trend of an ageing and diminishing Parliamentary left. Months later, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise victory in the leadership election – and a more left-leaning intake of new MPs in 2017 – the Campaign Group suddenly became the place to be. Anyone with any pretence to be broadly on the left of Labour joined in order to signify their loyalty to the new establishment. And so the SCG became much like the group from which it had split in the first place: a large, but broad to the point of ineffective left.

As long as the left held the leadership, this presented few problems. As you might expect, given the soft left’s history of attraction to whichever faction is dominant, recruits in this period – and even in the 2019 election, when the left had more control over selections – included MPs whose politics were at some remove from those of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, or Diane Abbott. Some, though not all, belonged to the ‘Love Socialism, Hate Brexit’ group, which united the likes of Lewis, Rachael Maskell (who backed Keir Starmer for the leadership, having previously nominated Clive Lewis and then Emily Thornberry), and Landlloyd Russell-Moyle with others to the right of the Campaign Group, such as Rosie Duffield, Anneliese Dodds and Luke Pollard, in opposition to Labour’s 2017 Brexit position. Others, animated less by stopping Brexit than by loyalty to Angela Rayner, included Kim Johnson, Mick Whitley, Paula Barker, and Nav Mishra. Compass Youth graduate Sam Tarry could be said to have a foot in both camps and is – unsurprisingly – involved in the latest faction to emerge: the definitely-not-a-split ‘New Left’ project.

Despite their different origins and motivations, one thing that these soft left factions share is a willingness to serve under the new rightward-moving Labour leadership. Of the 35 members of the Campaign Group listed on Wikipedia, 26 were elected in or after 2015; of these 26, at least 16 are, or have been, shadow ministers or PPSes (backbenchers who are bound by frontbench discipline) under Starmer’s leadership. Needless to say, given that the original purpose of the Campaign Group was to maintain independence from the centre, this is unprecedented. Little surprise, then, that only half the Campaign Group – and none of the ‘New Left’ gang – signed the original letter in support of Corbyn’s reinstatement. And even less surprise that amendments tabled by socialist MPs often attract no more than half of the group.

Many of these soft left Campaign Groupers were involved in a plot to displace Richard Burgon as Campaign Group secretary in Spring 2020. The plot failed, but it signalled their intentions (and numerical strength) so effectively that Burgon has not dared to call an AGM since. With flashpoints perennially deferred, the Campaign Group is now stuck in a holding pattern, with the loud and coherent voice of resistance muffled in favour of rallies and ‘policy seminars’, wherein issues on which determining a socialist position should require less than a moment’s thought are instead subjected to endless ‘debate’.

With flashpoints perennially deferred, the Campaign Group is now stuck in a holding pattern, with the loud and coherent voice of resistance muffled in favour of rallies and ‘policy seminars’.

Most ridiculously of all, Mishra recently accepted the offer of a role in the Whips’ Office – surely the first time that a Campaign Group member has accepted a commission from a hostile leadership to enforce discipline and sniff out plots. Many clearly believed that Forward Momentum might prove a significant break with the backroom politics which stitched up Momentum’s support for Rayner, but the growing common ground between MPs with links to both Forward Momentum and Momentum Renewal has made it increasingly clear that the Momentum elections were simply a choice between two paths to irrelevance.

One MP who didn’t join the ‘New Left’ group was quoted as saying that at least it had a strategy. It is easy to understand how a strategy which involves feeling listened to in the Parliamentary tea rooms feels more within-reach than the only real alternative strategy that can oppose the right: a hard slog rebuilding the left, inside and outside Parliament, over a number of years. Despite what looks, superficially, like relative strength, in many respects we are starting from further back than before Corbyn became leader. The left currently holds five out of nine CLP representatives (with additional right-wing representatives from Wales and Scotland) on the National Executive Committee, compared with four out of six before. The nominations threshold for leadership elections has also been increased to 20%, from the 15% threshold over which Corbyn barely scraped in 2015. The routes to power that we took last time are now decisively blocked. If 2015 appeared to vindicate those who argued that Labour could be captured for the left, the 2020s currently seem set to justify those who argued the reverse, with the legacy institutions of the hard left’s high tide reduced to boosting the leadership ambitions of centrists and promoting patronising essays by soft left academics begging people not to leave.

Either the contradictions inherent in a Parliamentary left which simultaneously enforces and opposes the leadership’s retreat from Corbynism will soon burst into the open—unpleasantly but necessarily—or the Campaign Group will continue to fester in irrelevance while its membership is co-opted, demoralised, or deselected back down to pre-2015 levels, and the members on whom these MPs rely for support are purged, or simply drift away.

Either the contradictions inherent in a Parliamentary left which simultaneously enforces & opposes the leadership’s retreat from Corbynism will soon burst into the open or the Campaign Group will continue to fester in irrelevance.

The big boys of left strategy who argued for the broadest possible unity of the left might hope that nobody remembers, but the losers will be anyone who hoped for any glimmer of a fightback—or of the inspiration glimpsed between 2015 and 2019.

  1. The European Climate Foundation, from which the new group is seeking support, is funded by organisations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, the IKEA Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. 


Nicky Hutchinson